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The seven faces of the French mountains

France’s mountain ranges may feel familiar, but the personal stories of seven locals reveal a new side to these epic peaks

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Iconic and inspiring in equal measure, France’s mountain ranges mean something to almost every one of us. From the French Alps, home to the Three Valleys and the world’s biggest interconnected ski resorts, to Peyragudes in the Pyrenees — where the famous opening scene of Tomorrow Never Dies was shot and modern hotels meet spectacular mountain scenes. Whether you’ve been skiing here since the age of three, took the kids for Christmas last year, or have simply heard the tales of your friends, the peaks of France have a sense of the wonderful yet familiar. But what about what you don’t see — what goes on behind the scenes to make these places tick? 

Here are the untold stories of the individuals you walk past everyday on your ski holiday — ordinary people living in an extraordinary environment. From the pro snowboarder who runs a craft brewery in Valloire, and the architect who designs buildings inspired by the Pyrenees, to the lift operator in Les Gets, and the inventor from La Plagne who revolutionised Paralympic skiing. These are the faces of the French mountains, who owe their passions and ways of life to the rugged landscapes and snowy peaks they’re lucky enough to call home.

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Find additional stories via #FacesOfTheFrenchMountains on Facebook and track picture updates from award-winning adventure photographer Alexander J Collins via the @FrenchMountains page here

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Antoine Diet, Val Thorens. Freeski programme manager & co-owner of Le Crewzer

1) The Guardian

Antoine Diet, Val Thorens. Freeski programme manager & co-owner of Le Crewzer

“Growing up I felt like the luckiest boy alive. I skied every day, and when the snow was fresh I used to go to school by sledge. Now I teach children freestyle skiing — showing them how to land their first backflips is the best thing ever.

I run Early Camp, a freeski programme across the Belleville Valley, including Val Thorens, Les Menuires and St Martin de Belleville. It’s one of the biggest training setups in the Alps, and we get some of the best riders in France here to learn new tricks.

By day I teach freestyle, but by night I flip burgers and sell beer in my new bar Le Crewzer, in Val Thorens. It’s popular with the best freeskiers and snowboarders, but we like to welcome new visitors too. Living in the mountains makes you tough, and that resilience helps when it comes to your work life. But we also know how to have a lot of fun too.

In terms of skiing, the North Caron face is my favourite spot. The snow stays fresh and it’s easy to reach the top by cable-car. There’re so many good ways down: jumpy-pumpy runs, steeps, couloirs, you name it.

Life’s different now from when I was a kid, but it still revolves around these amazing mountains and I continue to feel like the luckiest person alive. Val Thorens is my home. I was born here and I’ll die here. It’s hard to say where I start and the mountains end.”

At 7,500ft altitude Val Thorens is Europe’s highest mountain resort, sitting in the heart of the vast Three Valleys, the world’s biggest ski area. Recently, it’s won multiple awards as the world’s best ski resort.

 

Christelle Combépine, Les Gets. Owner, Téléski de la Turche

2) The Lift Operator

Christelle Combépine, Les Gets. Owner, Téléski de la Turche

“The Téléski de la Turche was set up in 1946 by my grandparents. My grandfather would pair up the skiers waiting in the singles line to ride the lift, then his booming voice would echo over the speakers: “Gentlemen, kiss your riders!” It was essentially a primitive form of speed dating! Romance surrounds this lift and mountain. Lots of people find love here.

When I was a baby, my cot was in the ski lift office and I spent my childhood playing in the mountains. Today, I run it — the last independent ski lift in Les Gets. We get around 1,000 skiers a day through La Turche and they all use the original paper ticket system. It’s frozen in time, loaded with history.

My grandfather also established the Ski School in Les Gets and he let locals and school members ride the lift for free. We’ve always tried to maintain that closeness with the community. I love to see the familiar and not so familiar faces every day.

The area around Les Gets has been my family’s home for more than 70 years. We’ve used the resources the mountains provide to build a sustainable life for more than three generations. My father Pierre, my sister Virginie and I fight to preserve the lift and its heritage so the adventure can continue.”

Les Gets is a charming, authentic village popular with families. It’s part of Les Portes du Soleil, one of the world’s biggest ski areas.

 

Marion Gouwy, Peyragudes. Pro snowboarder & architect

3) The Soul Searcher

Marion Gouwy, Peyragudes. Pro snowboarder & architect

“My local mountains changed my life. When I started snowboarding in Peyragudes at 15, I began to see the world differently. This wild Pyrenean valley was in complete contrast to my native city, Toulouse.

These days I’m an architect in Toulouse, visiting Peyragudes at the weekends. It has a huge influence on my work — I envisage buildings as mountains, thinking of ways to incorporate them into my architectural designs. I’m inspired by their permanence, the sense you get that they’ll exist forever.

My favourite face is the north face of Cap des Hittes, but when I had a bad injury I had to learn to love the mountains in a different way. This led me to paragliding. To fly alone with a little piece of fabric and strings gave me a different perspective on my mountains. I discovered a whole world I never knew existed.

Peyragudes sets the rhythm of my life and provides the balance I crave. The outdoor experiences I have here are like air for me. I need them to exist. I have to slide on the snowy slopes, to fly over the jagged peaks, to explore the forests, and spend time with local friends as often as I can.”

Peyragudes is a modern resort marrying the unspoilt beauty of the Pyrenees with slick facilities and a thermal spa.

 

Brice Le Guennec, Valloire. Pro snowboarder & co-founder of Galibier Brewery

4) The Craft Brewer

Brice Le Guennec, Valloire. Pro snowboarder & co-founder of Galibier Brewery

“Valloire was one of the first ski resorts in France, but it’s never fully thrown off its roots as a farming village. You can still visit local farms to buy your milk and cheese, and it’s not unusual to spot cows, goats and even llamas about the place. That’s what makes it so special and unique; it has this wonderful blend of the modern and traditional.

The first time the French Snowboard Championships were held in Valloire, I said to myself: “That’s what I want to do.” Some years later that’s exactly what I did — I became a professional snowboarder. It wasn’t easy, but the pull of wanting to make the mountains my life was strong, so I knew I had to make it work.

These days I run the Galibier Brewery in Vallorie which, at an altitude of 4,750ft, is the highest in France. I did internships in breweries, I was trained, and it became a passion. But one factor was essential: stay in Valloire. We’ve got perfect water quality here, so we had to produce a homemade beer. I create new flavours and textures with my best friends from childhood.

The mountains never cease to surprise. Driving through the valley one dark, foggy day last October, two dogs suddenly appeared before the car. By the time my friend and I got out to move them, two more had appeared. As we got closer, we realised they were actually wolves: a mother and three hungry cubs. Then, in the blink of an eye, they disappeared as fast as they’d arrived.”

Valloire is a lesser-known gem in the unspoilt Maurienne Valley. It’s charming village and offers excellent value, which makes it an ideal choice for families, and those after an authentic French experience.

 

Thierry Thorens, Morzine. Chef and Sculptor

5) The Artisan

Thierry Thorens, Morzine. Chef and Sculptor

“My love and appreciation for the mountains of Morzine comes from spending my childhood here. I used to roam the pastures with the herds; it’s something you might still catch me doing from time to time.

I learnt my trade as a chef in some top kitchens, but my love of cooking comes from my mother. She passed on recipes and secrets nurtured by Haute-Savoie mountain communities over generations, the local stuff you wouldn’t normally find in a cookbook or food blog — how best to cook black pig or make a pike mousse, for example.

I try to make my menu reflect the region’s values while also remaining inventive and current. It’s a gourmet experience, but also a place that welcomes artists, locals and holidaymakers alike. Working with the seasons is a regular source of inspiration for me. Spring is definitely the face of the mountain I look forward to the most; after the hardships of winter it’s wonderful to see the green produce, animals and flowers flourish once again.

One of the more odd spring memories I have is looking out the front of the restaurant and seeing a squirrel crossing the street using a zebra crossing. Everyone stopped and waited, then life continued as normal. I felt as if I’d stepped into some kind of alternate reality.”

Morzine is a stunning mountain town at the heart of Les Portes du Soleil, one of the world’s biggest ski areas. It’s a popular place for families and party animals alike.

 

Enak Gavaggio, Les Arcs. Freeride ski champion

6) The Adrenaline Junkie

Enak Gavaggio, Les Arcs. Freeride ski champion

“The mountains around Les Arcs are incredible because they’re so varied. I arrived here about 20 years ago and never want to leave. I love being in the valley, having my breakfast and looking up at the mountain peaks, but I also love being at the summit, relaxing in a high-altitude restaurant, gazing into the distance.

I know these mountains off by heart but they can always surprise you. Several times I’ve got completely lost. That’s part of their magic; they’re bigger than you think, and the hard-to-reach spots are some of my favourite places — they’re amazing for when you want to be alone.

Occasionally, I’ll go off somewhere quite remote and bump into someone I’ve never met before. It’s like two wolf packs meeting. I have so many questions: Are they like me? How did they find this place? Where are they going? I’m sure they’re asking the same questions of me too.

As a professional skier, it might look like I’m on holiday all the time, but it’s not like that at all. To live your passion is a tough job. There’s the stress, the challenges along the way, and you have to restart from zero every year. You really have to have your heart in it. But naturally I consider myself a very privileged person because I have a job that I really enjoy. I feel very lucky.”

Les Arcs is a high-altitude, avant garde resort in the Paradiski area with five different villages. It’s a hotbed of innovation, hosting a range of imaginative events throughout the winter.

 

Marc Gostoli, La Plagne. Founder, Antenne Handicap in La Plagne

7) The Inventor

Marc Gostoli, La Plagne. Founder, Antenne Handicap in La Plagne

“What I love about this life is being able to share my joy of skiing and the mountains with people who’d never normally have dreamed of experiencing it.

In 1995, I set up the Antenne Handicap association in La Plagne. I invented ‘Trottiski’, a machine that mechanically reproduces the eight movements that are essential for skiing. It was initially created to allow disabled skiers to ski upright.

I really wanted disabled skiers to get the same feelings non-disabled skiers felt. I wanted to push back against the limits of their handicap and, above all, help them be as independent as possible on the mountain. To see the happiness on the face of a boy who’s wheelchair-bound when he discovers he can ski standing up is truly amazing.

To live this remotely in the mountains breeds creativity. Specialist shops and stores are hours down the valley, so solving everyday problems with what you have around you is essential. These conditions gave me a passion for mechanics and continue to fuel my work.

One of my latest inventions uses gravity to transport materials in the form of a rescue chair that’s revolutionising the use of the traditional snow patrollers’ sled. And, I created a snow wheelbarrow for transporting food or equipment. On a clear day, the face of Mont Blanc shines bright on the horizon. Staring at that view, with the sun on my face, I know the day will be beautiful and enriching. I can’t think of a more inspiring place to work.”

La Plagne is the world’s most popular ski resort, with 2.5 million skiers out on its slopes every day in winter. The area’s part of Paradiski, the world’s second-largest ski area, made up of 11 different villages.

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